Ashley Highfield: Public must defeat Lords' plan to muzzle the media

Unelected Lords have introduced a new law that would silence newspapers or force them to accept state control '“ unless the public takes action, writes Ashley Highfield, CEO of Johnston Press.

Scottish local newspapers could be put at risk by Draconian new media laws
Scottish local newspapers could be put at risk by Draconian new media laws

A couple of weeks ago the House of Lords did something astonishing.

They used an entirely unrelated Bill on data protection to sneak through an amendment that could threaten the existence of many newspapers. Now elected MPs need to protect the work of the press – and democracy - by undoing the work of unelected peers.

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We need them to vote down this harmful, backdoor threat to local and regional papers and ones like The Scotsman that you are reading just now. This is why I am writing directly to our readers today, to encourage you to make your views known to your MP and ensure we continue to have a vibrant and free press.

I must admit, I’m a fan of newspapers that are genuinely devoted to the areas they cover. You might expect that: I’m chief executive of the company that publishes The Scotsman. But it isn’t just Johnston Press titles, I’m an evangelist for all such papers.

I agree with Lord Leveson, who published a report into press ethics some years back and said such titles were “good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role”.

Practices on certain London-based national newspapers were appalling, and the culture that led to phones being hacked needed to be radically overhauled through the Leveson Inquiry.

But one of Leveson’s recommendations – that newspapers should be forced to sign up to a Government-sponsored regulator or face the guarantee of ruinous court costs – is frankly terrible for newspapers which were never involved in the scandals of Fleet Street.

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It worked like this: when enacting Leveson’s recommendations ministers wanted every paper in the land to sign up to a regulator approved by a state-appointed panel.

Practically every paper in the country views this as too much of a step towards state regulation of a free press.

To strong-arm papers into signing up for this kind of regulation, they made a law (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act) that said if a title didn’t join an approved regulator, then anytime they were taken to court – whether they won or lost – they would have to pay all the costs, including of unsuccessful claimants.

Just think that through for a moment. The smallest, most dedicated local paper (try The Buteman, with one full-time journalist) could be taken to court, win on every count – but still have to pay all the costs of the losing complainant as well their own.

Not only is that unfair, not only would it create a constant fear of financial ruin, but that fear would have a devastating effect on the freedom of journalists to do what we all need them to do – to hold the powerful to account without fear or favour.

If someone didn’t like a critical story a newspaper had run, they could threaten legal action in the knowledge that even if they lost they would face no cost and the newspaper would be damaged, possibly ruined. It would have a chilling effect on journalism.

The experiences of women affected by sexual harassment; MPs’ use of parliament’s flawed expenses system to build duck houses, refurbish their homes and commit criminal fraud; and investigations into tax avoidance on a massive scale such as the Panama Papers – to name only a few recent scandals exposed by the press – might never have come to light in the UK if these laws had existed.

Newspaper reporting of these issues has led to the resignation of Cabinet Ministers, the imprisonment of MPs, and embarrassed celebrities and others into paying their fair share of tax. It’s vital such coverage continues.

That is why we were relieved when the Government said it would repeal this awful measure, but now the House of Lords wants those provisions to be enforced through another means.

To be absolutely clear, we want and expect robust press regulation. But that cannot mean a choice between quasi-state regulation and the constant fear of financial annihilation at the hands of those who do not want to be held to account.

The new, industry-backed regulator we are now signed up to is tougher than critics realise.

If an enquiry is raised by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) on one of our smaller local titles, a vast number of work hours can be spent exhaustively going through notebooks full of shorthand and taped recordings in order to be sure we got the story right, and to resolve any complaint. We always want to get the story right: that is how we serve our readers and our business won’t prosper unless we serve them well.

So elected MPs, even if they’ve been on the wrong end of tough scrutiny from their local paper, need to stand up for a free press and local democracy. If they agree that their constituents must have the opportunity to hold them accountable through free and fair reporting, they must overturn the vote in the Lords.

Because if this reckless act is not overturned, many papers will not be around to serve local communities at all.